Dungeons And Dragons In The ESL classroom
Dungeons and Dragons is currently my bread and butter. My amazing DM who I will shamelessly shill right here got me into it and now it is simply my thing to do at the weekend. Now we’ve already sung the praises of Dungeons and Dragons in our article on how it could help people with autism, I know. Yet, the more I play the more aspects of the game I realise are perfect for my English classes.
What is Dungeons and Dragons?
Dungeons and Dragons is the origin story of many modern day RPG video games. It is essentially a board game version of cooperative storytelling. Often cited as the height of nerdiness and sometimes quite complicated. I know when I started, the DM (Dungeon Master) told me to roll a ‘D20’ I just stared at him like he was speaking Klingon.
It’s essentially storytelling with rules and limitations that make it interesting and you are at the mercy of your dice. Now I don’t think you could bring Dungeons and Dragons into the average ESL classroom vanilla. If nothing else those 20 sided dice are damn expensive. What I suggest is that you take elements from Dungeons and Dragons and use them in your classroom. Engage your students and capture their imaginations in ways completely alien to them.
How Can Dungeons And Dragons Help Students?
While experimenting with Dungeons and Dragons in the classroom I notice more and more benefits to using it. Not only is it wacky and different but the students are motivated to learn what I am giving them. The English classroom has become a social gathering of adventurers and champions.
Naturally Introducing Vocabulary
The most obvious benefit for me is the natural way I can introduce vocabulary. There are certain prerequisites to playing Dungeons and Dragons like making your character. The character creation alone can take up several classes where you can bring in all kinds of topics. Not only was I able to do body parts, but because I included Kenku, Tabaxi and Dragonborn amongst the races I was able to talk about fur, feathers and scales, not to mention horns and claws.
I used the basic Dungeons and Dragons rules as my only limitations when it came to character creation. Students who created characters that were the opposite gender were suddenly exposed to having to practice pronouns they could usually expertly avoid. Beyond physical appearance, we could talk about the personality of the characters and even what they valued and what flaws they had. There is of course still lesson planning involved, but the flow of work felt a lot more organic than usual.
Keeping Your Students Comfortable
Having this third person to talk about really helps shy students. It can be difficult to talk about yourself in front of a classroom of your fellows. Talking about this awesome Dragonborn knight, on the other hand, is easy. I saw a real difference in engagement in my classroom amongst my quiet students.
It also made approaching topics like physical descriptions a lot easier. It can be hard to introduce vocabulary like pretty or ugly or fat and evade nastiness. Yet using these characters the students took pride in the fact that their character was a fat lazy Kenku who just wanted to drink and play the guitar. I used my Classroom Currency method when giving out homework and found that nearly all of my students did extra work for it. Some researched additional phrases to help them describe their character better. One even looked up English words for magical spells he wanted his wizard to learn.
To summarise, they were engaged and loving the class. Not only that but they were eager to share their characters with each other and make each other laugh at the bizarre things they came up with.
The Fantasy Setting Allowed Me To Introduce Interesting Vocabulary
My students still sit in that same mundane white-walled classroom they use for every subject. Yet with a few pictures and some imagination, they are traversing snowy mountains in Faerun. The fantasy setting gives you an environment where you can introduce vocabulary that is hard to bring into the classroom. From ‘leather’ to a ‘quiver’ these are words that are commonly skipped over in class but can add so much flavour to a lesson. I didn’t want to dedicate a lesson to going through the vast assortment of weapons out there. So when we were creating our characters I told them to search for the weapon they wanted in the dictionary as part of their homework.
I was able to teach them directions and compass points by having them try to navigate their character through an enchanted forest. They played a game of Simon Says with a Pseudodragon. The students learned to ‘Run’ and ‘Be Quiet’ and ‘Crawl’ when sneaking around a deadly red dragon. When I taught them the difference between persuasive and intimidating language they could practice on the townsfolk. I let them create their own insults and stereotypes for the fantasy races and let them showcase their interactions in front of the class.
Drawing From World Mythology
No matter the nationality of the students you teach they will have been exposed to some fantasy figures. In the English book my grade 1’s use, they have an angel as a normal everyday character. Beyond that, my students collect cards that depict all kinds of monsters and mechs. Giving them the English words for Elves and Orcs if often something of interest to them. You don’t need to take anything out of your lesson plans, just add a few fantasy stage pieces to bring it to life.
If you aren’t keen on teaching pure fantasy words then also describe them. A Centaur is a half man half horse, a selkie a seal who can turn into a person etc. Use this as an opportunity to learn the mythology and culture of the area you teach. Ask your students about mythological animals they know and the stories they grew up with. I am still fascinated by the legend of the Nian my students taught me. Take a genuine interest in what your students bring to the table and it’ll encourage students to engage with you more.
Use The Setting To Justify Speaking A Different Language
In the world of Dungeons and Dragons, there are a vast host of languages. There is Elvish and Draconic and Celestial and more. All you need do to justify your students speaking a completely different language is make their native language one of the exotic languages from the game. Tell them that Chinese is Celestial and English is Common.
This also gives you the opportunity to make the other languages into various challenges. For example, what if Elves only write using the International Phonetic Alphabet? ðæt sʌks fɔː juː. What if Kenku, being a race all about mimicry, need you to use a lot of similes when you speak? What if dragons can only understand you if you use long words? In one of my classes, I gave them a bucket of root words from Latin and Greek and let them create the names of magical spells by sticking them together. After a little tweaking, we used their best creations in the story.
Give your students a role in building the world around them.
Some Dungeons And Dragons Themed Lesson Ideas
Here are a few ideas I used in my Dungeons and Dragons classes. Feel free to use them or expand on them.
What Does Your Character Look Like? Have students describe the physical attributes of their character and pick a race for that character. For homework, you can have them draw their character and display the final product or use the picture to give them additional vocabulary. It’s a great way to give them words like ugly and have them take pride in making an ugly character.
What Does Your Character Wear? Give your students vocabulary for various items of clothing and a few items of armour. I gave my students the words of materials too (Metal, Leather) and was delighted by the descriptions they came up with. For homework, have them research the name of the weapon they want their character to use or any additional words they need.
What Is Your Character Good/Bad At Doing? A great opportunity to throw in some negative descriptions which are usually hard to work in. You can also use this as an opportunity to introduce the stats used in Dungeons and Dragons (charisma, intelligence, wisdom, etc) and give them a handful of points to allocate to their character.
Where Are They From? Have your students say where their character is from using real countries or fantasy regions. Make them describe their characters hometown “Loomis is from the Ishgard in the Tundra region. It snows a lot there and she doesn’t much like it because she gets too cold to play her harp” and give it a little wiggle room so they can have fun with it.
Teach Directions With Map Reading: Sometimes the best adventures start with a simple thirst for treasure. Teach your students the points of the compass and some simple directions and have them navigate their way through your land. Perhaps have them ask travellers along the way which path they should take and which paths are dangerous. For homework, you can have them draw their own map marking their adventure.
Them’s Fighting Words: Have your young adventurers have a verbal altercation with a bandit. Use it as an opportunity to teach the importance of tone and using ‘please’ etc. It’s also a lot of fun to let them come up with their own insults for the bandit.
Persuasion and Intimidation: In a similar vein to the previous idea, teach your students the difference between persuasion and intimidation. Let them practice it on the townsfolk and other characters in the classroom and have them react to each other. I had my students try to get NPC to sit in a chair.
A Trip To The Hospital: After your students’ standoff with the bandit have them nurse their wounds at the hospital. Gives you a great opportunity to teach them about wounds and diseases using fantasy ailments. My personal favourite being Paranoid Mimic-aphobia.
A Trip To The Police Station: Grass up that bandit by telling the police what he looked like and what he did wrong! Very fun if you let the students make up the bandits various sins. One of my students was distraught that he ‘ate the last of the chocolate cake!’ oh the humanity.
A Trip To The Bard College: A real thing from Dungeons and Dragons and the perfect opportunity to teach the names of some instruments. Give them different attack powers and make it fun and the class will soon be rocking.
There’s Something About The Aery: have your students escape a tower of Kenku using their persuasion skills to get out. Give them lots of wiggle room to just come up with strange ideas to get out.
Fun and Random Ideas
Create Spells By Using Common Root Words: collect a nice bucket of flashcards with root words on them. Put the English meanings on the back and let the students create spells by combining the words together. Have them describe what they want the spell to do. For instance ‘Pyrodiction’ or Fire Words essentially ended up being the spell vicious mockery.
Elements By Dragon: Teach them the elements (and maybe the colours) by using the Dungeons and Dragons Dragons. Give them a few adjectives for how the dragons would use these elements to kill you and make it a cautionary tale about the burning fire of the red dragon.
Guess who, Character addition: Takes some preparation, but organise your students characters by fictional race, colour, job etc and do a massive game of guess who. Students love it because it involves their own characters. Doesn’t work so well if the characters are all very similar.
Naming Races: Teach your students about the various naming conventions of the various races. For instance, Kenku are named for what they do and thus have names like Whistler, Thumper, Hunter, Base. Have fun with it and see what your students come up with.
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